Giving the green light to suicide

Revelations that non-terminally ill people were euthanised in Switzerland calls into question the ‘right to die’ campaign.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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The concern about suicidal people with non-fatal illnesses travelling to Dignitas in Switzerland – where they were euthanised – underlines some of the fatal flaws in the case for legalising euthanasia here in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Concern will be expressed today by senior UK medical officials about the fact that patients with non-fatal illnesses have been arriving at the Swiss assisted-suicide clinic. The controversial clinic was in the news last month over its proposal to assist the death of a healthy Canadian woman who wished to die at the same time as her terminally ill husband.

Several of those travelling to Switzerland, according to list provided by Dignitas, had non-terminal illnesses such as Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

This is revealed in the midst of an attempt by assisted-suicide advocates to amend the law in the UK, where, presently, assisting a suicide can bring up to 14 years in prison. Lord Falconer is bringing an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill that would make it legal to travel abroad with someone to have an assisted suicide (as Dominic Lawson has noted, Falconer has touchingly called it the Purdy Amendment).

Much as these latest revelations raise questions about the law and whether it is wise to legalise euthanasia, they raise far more serious questions about the general case being made by assisted-suicide advocates. In particular, they raise questions about the terminology used in this debate, where advocates far prefer the polite-sounding phrase ‘assisted dying’ over the ugly word ‘suicide’ – yet when someone with a non-terminal illness opts to die, is that not simply and plainly suicide?

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of the UK-based group Dignity in Dying, has tried to hold on to the distinction between suicide and assisted dying: ‘A suicide is often motivated by despair, hopelessness, mental health problems or other concerns that could be treated or resolved. Assisted dying is a rational decision made by someone who knows that their condition is terminal and for them there is no resolution.’

Ms Wootton ignores the fact that, according to the evidence from Oregon in the US, where assisted suicide is legal, pain plays almost no role in requests for assisted suicide. Instead, it is despair, hopelessness and fear; these conditions are, unlike the terminal illnesses that underlie them, curable.

In any case, if we privilege personal autonomy and choice, one of Ms Wootton’s favourite words, then we must honour all requests for suicide, whether they are made by lovelorn 24-year-olds or 80-year-olds with terminal illnesses. The alternative is patronisingly to decide which adults’ suffering is legitimate and which is not. The legislative proposal to legalise assisted suicide would use the utterly random ‘six months to live’ criteria, telling those who meet the criteria that their lives are worthless and those who don’t that their feelings of depression and hopelessness are not valid.

Let us be clear. Changing the law on assisted suicide would not simply affect the handful of Britons who might take this option. It would be a quantum leap in society’s attitude towards suicide. Wootton is wrong to say that ‘[s]uicide is a legal choice’. The 1961 Suicide Act and other humane legislation provided a tolerant attitude towards suicide attempts and a sympathetic attitude towards the families of suicides, yet those who drafted the legislation emphasised that it did not signal approval of the act. By contrast, the legislative proposals of assisted-suicide advocates – who really wish to change the law in order to provide euthanasia clinics in this country – would validate suicide for reasons of despair, fear. And society would become complicit in these decisions.

To those contemplating suicide, we should always provide reasons for carrying on rather than counselling despair (why would a potential suicide ask for assistance if he or she did not at some level want to be argued out of the act?). The law as it now stands provides for a sympathetic response to those who attend mercy killings; no one now languishes in prison for these acts.

But, just as the legality of capital punishment reflects upon the relative enlightenment of a society (and if any lives are to be judged worthless and wretched, it should surely be those who have committed horrific crimes rather than those who are terminally ill), so does our attitude towards suicide.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Previously on spiked

spiked hosted a dignified debate about death. Kevin Yuill explained how the founder of the Swiss suicide clinic exposed the misanthropy of the ‘right to die’ lobby. He wondered if politics has become about pursuing the good death, and deplored the public parading of a severely disfigured French woman who wanted the ‘right to die’. Dr Margaret Branthwaite made the case for legalising assisted dying. Frank Furedi urged us to challenge the culture of death, while Brendan O’Neill peered into the world of pro-suicide websites. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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